Although a great deal has been written about Chinese immigration and its effects on Canada, one question that has been largely ignored is, ‘Why Canada?’

The story of ‘Gold Mountain’ is often invoked. As the story goes, the first Chinese came to Canada in 1858 following the Fraser River Gold Rush.

 

The myth of streets paved with gold and mountains of wealth then lured thousands of Chinese to Canada.  While this may have been true during the Gold Rush, it is unlikely that people continued to believe the myth almost 30 years later, when thousands of Chinese were being recruited to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. ‘Gold Mountain’ was even less likely to be a motivating factor once the railway had been completed and the workers left penniless and stranded.

 

Even after Canada imposed a $500 head tax, the Chinese continued to come.

 

To answer the question ‘Why Canada?’, we must look to China and see what these men were leaving.

Over 90% of the Chinese men who came to Canada between the 1880s and 1920s were from the Pearl River Delta region.  This small geographic area in Guangdong province supplied almost all of the Chinese labourers who came to North America during this period.

Throughout the 1800s, this once-fertile agricultural area was rocked by rebellions, political instability and drought.

 

The region had also been the site of the Opium Wars with Great Britain.  China’s defeat in the Wars led to the establishment of the British colony of Hong Kong, one of the great free trade ports of the 19th and 20th centuries. Terrible living conditions in their villages, access to an international port and Hong Kong’s British associations made Canada an obvious choice for those willing to take a risk to secure better futures for themselves and their families.

Copyright 2014 Royal Alberta Museum

Contributors